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Not Solely a 'Women's Cause'

April 12, 2007 By:
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Marcia Cohn Spiegel and Naomi Tucker turn to Jewish rites to help heal abuse survivors.

Cheryl Kravitz stayed with her husband for 18 years.

She stayed with him after he hurled a lamp at her head. She stayed with him though he made her sleep on the kitchen floor. And she stayed with him despite the fact that he stuck her arms into a burning oven.

Though she acknowledges today that she felt "terrified to stay" in this relationship, she also admits that she was equally scared to walk away from it. Among other concerns, she said she didn't know where to go, who to turn to, or what to do with the couple's young daughter.

For women who live in this constant state of entrapment -- "prisoners of war" in their own homes, as Kravitz described it -- how does the abusive cycle end?

According to organizers of a domestic-violence conference held in Baltimore last month -- where Kravitz and dozens of other battered women shared their stories -- the answer lies in empowerment.

More specifically, the conference, coordinated by a group called Jewish Women International, focused on ways that advocates against domestic violence can help remove the barriers -- financial, legal, cultural and otherwise -- that hinder Jewish women from leaving unhealthy relationships.

Appropriately, the event -- attended by more than 300 lawyers, advocates, social workers and clergy -- was titled "Beyond Awareness: Effecting Change."
An Existing Stigma
The implicit premise behind the gathering, according to JWI executive director Loribeth Weinstein, is that at this point, people are aware that domestic violence exists within Jewish families.

JWI, which is based in Washington, D.C., and runs 100 chapters worldwide, has been working exclusively on this issue since 1988. Previously an arm of B'nai B'rith International, the organization redefined its mission statement after a 41-year-old member was murdered by her estranged husband.

In another session, Hedda Matza-Haughton shows how improvisational theater can explore unhealthy relationships.

Since that time, JWI -- one of an estimated 60 groups in the country tackling domestic violence in the Jewish community -- has spearheaded a clergy task force, conducted a needs-assessment study, produced several documentaries, founded a women's magazine and hosted two other international conferences on the subject.

Despite these and other communal strides made against abuse, there are still those that have never heard of -- or, worse, chose to ignore -- the violence that afflicts Jewish homes.

As Weinstein pointed out in a separate interview, prevailing images of Jewish women suggest they are headstrong, smart and wealthy, while Jewish men are considered to be doting husbands and prize breadwinners. The logical conclusion to follow: If Jewish women were subject to abuse, they would have the common sense and resources to get out.

In reality, this is not always the case. In fact, cultural patterns ingrained in Jewish life often reinforce the paralysis of victims.

Among other reasons, Jewish women feel they have nowhere to go, since domestic-violence shelters are too foreign and public; that they don't have access to family bank accounts, which are often controlled by abusive men; that they must stay to preserve shalom bayit -- or "peace in the house"; and that they shouldn't bring shame, a shandah, to the family.

Throughout the conference, panelists used breakout sessions to explore these obstacles from a variety of perspectives and to suggest problem-solving techniques.

Several sessions, for example, provided remedies from a legal perspective, with the hope that battered women will achieve greater success in court. Other panels focused on the role that rabbis might play in removing the stigma around abuse.

The conference even moved into the realm of spirituality, as presenters described how Judaism can offer an effective therapy for those on the road to recovery.

Such practices, at least, have been used for years by Naomi Tucker, the executive director of a San Francisco-area domestic-violence agency, and Marcia Cohn Spiegel, who founded an addiction-treatment program in Los Angeles.

Illustrating their methodology, the pair started out by simulating the creation of a "sacred space" with candles and an intimate seating arrangement. They said that elements like wine, water, silence and prayer would work equally well in setting the right mood.

Tucker and Spiegel also advised participants to take advantage of the symbolic elements in Judaism.

"One of the things we hope to do in ritual is to create a safe space for transformation," explained Spiegel.

Holidays lend themselves nicely to metaphor as well: The speakers suggested discussing ideas of freedom around Passover, cycles of life and rebirth on Tu B'Shevat, and "the masks" worn during Purim.

"Take some of those themes and make them relevant for survivors of abuse," Tucker told the group. "There's a lot that's very rich in our tradition."

Tucker, who described herself as a secular Jew, said that an encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism is not required to run a healing workshop.

But, she cautioned, it is appropriate to plan sessions based on those in attendance. More observant participants might have different needs than their secular counterparts, and some women may be sensitive to language that paints God in male terms. For all abuse survivors, it is important to be mindful of activities that require physical contact, she added.

The main thing, Spiegel stressed, is to give battered women a sense that healing can come from Judaism.

"When I first sought help, I was very uncomfortable because it was a very Christian model," said the speaker, who sat through recitations of the Lord's Prayer when she first joined a support group.

"Jews use this as an excuse not to get into recovery," continued Spiegel. "They say, 'Oh, it feels so Christian. I'm not doing that.' But when we do it within a Jewish context, we acknowledge that our Jewish community supports the work that we're doing. That, in itself, is a step in the healing process."

'Equality Among the Sexes'
The idea of empowerment -- woven into nearly every facet of the conference -- was not confined solely to women. In fact, the event's keynote speaker was a man.

Standing before a sea of women, Jackson Katz, a hulking ex-football player, hardly seemed like the type to talk about feelings, let alone to express feminist rage.

Yet during the speech, he spoke fiercely against "a pandemic of men's violence against women."

As Katz pointed out, working with women -- urging them to leave broken relationships, teaching them to avoid unsafe situations -- is important work. But, he added, it's merely treating the symptoms of a disease.

"Less than 1 percent of rapes are perpetrated by women," said Katz, who recently wrote a book called The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. "True prevention, by definition, means working with the root of the problem, and that's men."

More specifically, the speaker defined the culprit as men's power and dominance in society.

"It has become a social norm for men to act and feel entitled in certain ways," he explained. "We don't have equality among the sexes, and anybody who thinks that we do is deluded."

According to Katz, men need to challenge the status quo, and to use their position of authority to champion so-called "women's causes," like domestic violence.

For one, Katz said, it's time to admit that abuse is not just a women's issue.

Calling it such "gives men an excuse not to pay attention" and "keep's men's responsibility hidden."

Katz pointed out that linguistic gender biases work in more subliminal ways as well. For example, though it's common to refer to "battered women," that title neglects to mention the perpetrators at hand: men.

Similarly, asking "how many women were raped" instead of "how many men raped women" moves the onus away from the perpetrators.

"You have to couch things in a language men can hear," he told the crowd.

Katz called for men to use whatever leverage they can to take a stand against domestic violence. Rabbis should use "their incredible platform of leadership" to discuss the perversion of male culture, he suggested. Other men could do things like challenge sexist jokes in the locker room, or set positive role models for young boys, suggested Katz.

For 15 men in Chicago, the effort has morphed into a monthly discussion group called MENSCH.

In another presentation geared for men, MENSCH founder Randy Parks described the group, which he initiated in May 2005, as an environment where males can explore gender politics in an open, nonthreatening way.

"We created this very safe space, where men could be extremely honest and vulnerable to look at their own relationships," he explained.

Katz is doing this work on a national scale; he travels the country running training programs for "guys with masculine credibility," like marines and athletes.

He admitted that the battle against male violence is like "shoveling sand against a cultural tide," especially since "guys shut down or get defensive" at the slightest hint of feminist rhetoric.

But, he stressed, his campaign is "not male-bashing. Facts don't discriminate against men." 

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